Animals in the New Testament

Specialists and general readers alike spend so much time focusing on the various human characters in the New Testament that it is easy to overlook the role that members of the animal kingdom play in its stories and teachings. Animals feature throughout the entire Bible playing memorable parts usually in the service of moral lessons (most people have heard about the serpent in the Garden of Eden). The New Testament is not without its animal references either. But even more surprisingly, many people imagine animals in stories where they never appear at all!

For example, nearly everyone reading this is familiar with the Christmas story – it’s the story of Jesus’s birth. Recreations are on display in thousands of homes and churches during the Christmas season, featured on TV and in movies, and sermonized in church. Animals play a prominent role in these depictions. Joseph, for example, brings a very pregnant Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem riding on a donkey. The couple are forced to lodge in a stable with oxen and asses. Baby Jesus must be placed in an animal food trough for lack of a proper crib. Wise men from the east arrive on camels while shepherds bring their flock to Bethlehem to see the newborn king. Joseph is later warned to take his family to Egypt to escape King Herod’s wrath and dutifully places Mary back upon a donkey, perhaps the same one she rode from Nazareth. Animals everywhere!

Unfortunately, none of these animals appear in the gospel accounts of Jesus’s birth. Mary is not said to ride a donkey (ever); no animals are described as cohabiting the stable with the family; no camels accompany the wise men; and, while the shepherds were earlier watching their flock (Luke 2:8), no sheep are said to arrive with them at the stable. These animal appearances are all the result of later Christian imagination perhaps partly inspired by Jesus’s accusation in Luke 13:15 (“You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it?”) The role of these animals in the nativity story began in the second century in such extra-canonical texts as the Proto-gospel of James and the Infancy Gospel of pseudo-Matthew.

Nevertheless, the first animals we encounter in the gospel accounts of Jesus’s life are, indeed, mentioned in the birth stories. Following her delivery, Mary must be purified as commanded in the Torah (Leviticus 12). The rite involves the sacrifice of a lamb and/or two pigeons or turtledoves at the Temple in Jerusalem. Being poor, the family offered the latter. A dove features again in Jesus’s very first adult act, his baptism by John. The dove is meant to symbolize God’s spirit alighting on Jesus as he rises from the water. In fact, birds were frequently associated with the divine in antiquity due to their ability to soar upward toward the heavens. Birds were known to act as messengers of the gods.

Along with the pigeons and turtledoves mentioned above, birds are featured in a number of Jesus’s teachings. He points out how birds “do not spin” (Matthew 6:26; Luke 12:24 calls them “ravens”) and yet are clothed by God. Birds play meaningful roles in Jesus’s parable of the small mustard seed which grows so large it provides nests for birds (Matthew 13:32). Jesus laments that, while the lowly birds have nests, Jesus, as the Son of Man, has nowhere to call home (Matthew 8:20). Birds devour seed carelessly scattered by the sower in another of Jesus’s parables (Matthew 13:4). Pigeons again appear in the story of Jesus’s stormy visit to the Temple in Jerusalem where he overturns the tables of those who sold the commercially-raised birds for sacrificial purposes (Matthew 21:12). Pigeons and doves were considered ritually clean by Jews and thus appropriate for sacrificing. For Jesus, doves were symbols of innocence and cited as role models for his followers (Matthew 10:16). In Jewish thought, the dove was the ultimate symbol of Israel and of the soul.

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Fatherhood in the Gospels: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Fatherhood is well-represented in the New Testament. One of the very few authentic words spoken by Jesus and recorded in the gospels may be the Aramaic form of father: abba. Jesus, like other rabbis of ancient Judaism, characterized God as the male parent, benevolent but just, forgiving but demanding. The first-century world was a patriarchal one in which the father was head of the family and men generally ruled the political and social world. Just as the kings of Israel were men (with a rare queen here and there), so the God of Israel was conceptualized in masculine terms. In the pagan world, the gods could be of either gender though the primary god of the Greco-Romans, Zeus/Jupiter, was envisioned as a male.

There are a number of references to fathers other than God in the gospels. I thought it might be interesting to look at three of them, each distinctly different and spanning the spectrum of what we might judge to be good examples of fatherhood, bad examples, and just plain dysfunctional examples. Let’s begin with the first human father mentioned, Joseph of Nazareth.

Despite doctrinal belief in Jesus’s origins as the product of a union between the Spirit of God and a human woman, the role of human father in Jesus’s life was apparently played by Joseph, probably a lifelong resident of Nazareth. Despite the opening story of Jesus’s supernatural conception in the Gospel of Luke, that author twice refers to Joseph unabashedly as Jesus’s father (2:33, 48). The Gospel of John, which takes great pains to characterize Jesus as God’s preexistent Word made flesh, has the residents of Capernaum call Jesus “the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know” (6:42). Both Jesus and Joseph are described by the Greek word tekton, a builder or craftsman (frequently translated in English as “carpenter”). The Gospel of Matthew refers to Jesus as “the tekton’s son” (13:55) despite its opening story of Jesus being conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. Only the Gospel of Mark avoids calling Joseph the father of Jesus and instead calls Jesus “the son of Mary” but adds that he has brothers and sisters (6:3). This gives us a basic understanding of Jesus’s family situation.

But what of the story of Jesus’s miraculous conception? Was Jesus Joseph’s genetic son or an adopted one? Much depends on how one reads and accounts for the story of the supernatural pregnancy of Mary. It is common knowledge that the two birth stories of Jesus featured in Matthew and Luke are quite different in detail. Yet, they agree on several points. One is that, whoever fathered Jesus, it was not Joseph. Later attacks on Jesus’s origins claimed that Mary had become pregnant by another man while betrothed to Joseph. Adultery would have been the accusation in real time if Joseph was known not to be the father of Mary’s baby. Matthew even makes the point that Joseph knew that Mary had become pregnant by someone else and he seriously considered abandoning her (Matthew 1:19). Nevertheless, whether Mary told him the story of her conception as we have it in the gospel accounts, or whether he believed it, he took mother and child under his wing and raised Jesus as his own.

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Do We Have the Authentic Words of Jesus?

My New Testament students are sometimes surprised when I ask this question in class. Most of them have never thought about it before. Why would we even ask whether we have the authentic words of Jesus? Aren’t they recorded in quotations in the gospels? Weren’t the gospel authors ear- and eye-witnesses writing down what they saw and heard? It turns out, in fact, that this is a very important question and one that is not considered seriously enough by many who read the Bible.

There are many reasons for pursuing the question of the precise words, known in Latin as the ipissima verba, of Jesus. For one thing, some of Jesus’s sayings seem contradictory. For example, Jesus teaches that one must follow the Ten Commandments (Matthew 19:17) and honor one’s father and mother (Mark 10:19). Yet he also says that one must hate one’s parents in order to follow him (Luke 14:26). Some statements by Jesus seem difficult to apply literally. Some are just hard to understand.

When comparing Jesus as portrayed in the Gospel of Mark with Jesus as portrayed in the Gospel of John, one might be forgiven for wondering if the two authors were even writing about the same person! Jesus in John’s gospel never speaks in parables while Jesus in Mark’s gospel does so frequently. Jesus in Mark never equates himself to God the Father while Jesus in John frequently does. Jesus in Mark wants it kept secret who he is; John’s Jesus never stops talking about who he is.

In trying to reach an answer to our query, it is best to place ourselves in the context of the first-century Roman world, specifically Jewish Palestine, at the time of Jesus. No serious scholar doubts that Jesus was, among other things, a gifted teacher. If the gospels are any guide at all, Jesus taught using various forms of figurative language: parables, aphorisms, similes, etc. He was an itinerant Jewish craftsman who gave up his occupation to wander about the Holy Land teaching about God and making various observations on everyday life.

Now imagine Jesus actually doing that. Envision him in Capernaum in Galilee surrounded by a few disciples. He decides that the time is right for trying out a story he has been composing in his mind about a Samaritan who gives aid to a fallen Jew. The parable is well-received and his audience is moved to consider the story’s various implications. Four months later, Jesus is in Jericho in Judea. This time he is surrounded by a more skeptical crowd; some are downright hostile. For different reasons, Jesus feels it is appropriate to share his Samaritan parable, knowing that the effect on this crowd will be different. Ask yourself: What are the chances that in Jericho Jesus recited his parable using the exact same wording that he used when he told it in Capernaum? I mean exact, word-for-word, repetition. The answer is nil. Not only would Jesus not be concerned about telling the parable identically, word-for-word the same way he did previously; but he probably intentionally altered the parable given the different circumstances and the different impact he wanted to make on this different audience.

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In the Flesh? In Spirit Only? The Nature of the Risen Christ

It may be surprising to learn that early Christians did not initially agree as to the form in which Christ was raised from the dead. Possibly this is because relatively few claimed to have seen him and even fewer left any details about the experience. Ultimately, the church had to decide if Christ’s fleshly body was raised or just his soul or spirit. There were disagreements for a long time.

Resurrection itself was a distinctively Jewish belief. It was tied to the events of the Day of the Lord, that time when God, perhaps in conjunction with his representative or messiah, would reclaim the world which had gone astray through sin and disobedience. God would not only destroy the forces of evil (both divine and human) but refashion the world anew as it was in the mythical time of Eden. Not all Jews were apocalypticists but those who were generally agreed that during this time of future renewal the righteous dead would be raised to new life to be able to enjoy the reclaimed world. Some held that even sinners would be resurrected so that they could instead be punished.

What form would these resurrected individuals take? Not everyone agreed. If the words of Jesus quoted in the Gospel of Matthew are historically representative of Jesus’s thoughts on the matter, he believed that resurrected people would be “like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30), meaning that they would be divinized in some way (i.e., no longer flesh and blood). Whether or not this was Jesus’s view, it was not an uncommon belief among Jewish apocalypticists (which Jesus was). The Second Apocalypse of Baruch, a Jewish text from the late first or early second century, says that resurrected people “shall be made like angels” (51.10). Within the collection of Jewish sectarian texts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, is written the hope that each member of the sect “abide forever as an Angel of the Presence in the holy habitation” (1Q28b 4.25). And, in a much-overlooked passage by Paul, the apostle considers the risen Christ to be an angel (Galatians 4:14), probably the Angel of the Lord (Genesis 16, 22; Exodus 3:2, 10; etc.).

It is Paul and Paul alone who gives us firsthand information about his experience of the risen Christ. He also lists a number of appearances afforded other believers prior to his (1 Corinthians 15:5-8). In every case he uses the Greek ōpthē, emphasizing the experience’s visual quality (not audible, not tangible). Paul does not distinguish the manner of the appearance of Christ to him from that made manifest to the earlier recipients.

Later within the same letter, Paul apparently responds to a question about the nature of the resurrected person. This question was raised by his Gentile (non-Jewish) readers who considered the Jewish notion of resurrection, by which they understood that their corpses should rise from the grave, to be disgusting. Paul is quite clear in his explanation: the human body, sown as flesh, will rise in spirit; “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 15:35-54).

Does this view of the resurrected individual reflect the earliest views of the nature of the risen Christ? If we turn to the evidence presented in the New Testament about how other authors besides Paul, none of them eyewitnesses and all writing in the late first or early second century, understood the resurrected form of Jesus, we find conflict and contradiction.

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The Death of James, the Brother of Jesus

Although mentioned several times in the New Testament, Jesus’s brother James remains a shadowy figure. He is named in the Gospel of Mark as one of Jesus’s four brothers along with Joses (“little Joseph”), Judas (Judah), and Simon (Mark 6:3). None of the four gospels report much, if any, participation by the brothers in the earthly mission of Jesus although the Gospel of John seems to presuppose a supportive, if uncomprehending, role for them (John 2:12, 7:3-10).

Despite such ambiguous beginnings, the brothers (and their mother, Mary) are cited in the Acts of the Apostles as being among the very first Christ-believing Jews to form a community in Jerusalem (Acts 1:14). Later, James inexplicably appears as spokesman for the group, seemingly filling that position after Peter had departed “to another place” (Acts 12:17). James then speaks for the Jerusalem community when Paul and other missionaries from Antioch come to discuss the admittance of non-Jews to the growing number of Christ-followers (Acts 15; the details of this “Apostolic Conference” are also given by Paul in his Letter to the Galatians 2:2-10; note also the reappearance of Peter). Paul encounters James once more, according to Acts, when Paul visits Jerusalem for the last time and is questioned by James regarding allegations that he has been telling Jews to abandon Torah observance (Acts 21:18-21).

Paul himself is a source of valuable information about James. It is through Paul that we know that James had a vision of the risen Christ (1 Cor. 15:7). Though we have no details of the encounter in the New Testament, a second-century, apocryphal gospel known as the Gospel of the Hebrews, gives a narrative account of the episode. Paul also relates how he first met James (and Peter) in Jerusalem during a two-week stay several years after he had received his own vision of the risen Jesus (Gal. 1:19). Paul considered James to be one of the three “pillars” of the Jerusalem community along with Peter and John (Gal. 2:9).

Though the Letter of James in the New Testament is traditionally ascribed to James, the brother of Jesus, his authorship is doubtful. That being said, we come to the end of the information on James available to us from the New Testament. For more information, we must consult other historical works.

An account of the history of the early Christ-faith was prepared by a second-century, Jewish Christ-believer known as Hegesippus. His five-volume “Memoirs” apparently contained all sorts of information about the early church and its preaching. I say “apparently” because the work is mostly lost to us. A few passages from it were quoted by the fourth-century Christian historian Eusebius of Caesarea, in a text we do have. Fortunately, the Hegesippus passages preserved in Eusebius’s Church History are mostly about James.

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Early Christian Teaching on Same-gender Sex

Recently, the United Methodist General Conference for 2019 passed a controversial piece of legislation called The Traditional Plan which essentially affirms “the church’s current bans on ordaining LGBTQ clergy and officiating at or hosting same-sex marriage” (www.umnews.org). Supporters characterized the plan as adhering to “biblical” values. Members who supported a more liberal plan, called The One Church Plan, were disappointed and discouraged. Students, faculty, and staff on my campus have been asked to sign a petition by The Freedom Center for Social Justice that condemns the UM decision citing “Christ’s frustrations with religious conservatives” as a model for action.

Discussions such as the one being conducted in the United Methodist Church, and in many Christian churches, present an excellent opportunity to examine the history of the church’s teaching on same-gender sex. How and why did the earliest Christ-believers address these issues?

During the first decades of the movement founded in the name of Jesus, a small, Jewish sect took their message of Jesus’s messiahship and the imminent end of the age to other Jews and, eventually, to non-Jews throughout the Roman Empire. The original message was simple at first: Repent of your sins, be baptized, receive the Holy Spirit, and wait for the risen Jesus to return and bring about the Kingdom of God (Acts 2:36, 38).

When this message was eventually transmitted from Jewish mouths to non-Jewish ears it was adapted to a somewhat different culture with different requirements. Non-Jews belonged to a culture that was different in many ways from Judaism. For example, religion for non-Jews (pagans, polytheists) did not concern itself with personal beliefs but with ritual practice (known as “cult”): Worship the gods on time and in the right way and one’s religious obligations were satisfied. Jews, on the other hand, were concerned not only with proper cultic practice but with proper behavior as well. Behavioral standards were specified in the Torah (“instruction”; the first five books of the Bible). Christ-believing, Jewish missionaries who brought word of Messiah Jesus to non-Jews had to deal with the fact that non-Jews had no similar moral instruction, the result, they reasoned, of worshiping a variety of gods (“idolatry”). Greek and Roman philosophers did indeed debate moral issues and cultural behavior and often set standards that applied to their philosophical schools but these discussions were limited to the educated elite who had the wherewithal for such reflection. A cultural clash between Jew and pagan was impossible to avoid. In fact, it was already being reenacted everyday somewhere in the Roman Empire.

Hundreds of thousands of Jews had been scattered throughout the empire since before the second-century BCE. They met weekly in their synagogues where they read and discussed Torah and its ethical and moral requirements. It is a historical fact that significant numbers of non-Jews were attracted to the synagogues for this kind of teaching, having few other sources of moral and ethical instruction. Romans valued virtue (generally defined as controlling one’s passions) and it seemed to the non-Jews attending Jewish synagogues that instructions for living a virtuous life could be found in the Jewish Torah. It was largely through these non-Jews, called “God-fearers,” that Christ-believing missionaries reached out into the greater non-Jewish world with their message.

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Did the First Jewish Believers in Jesus Continue to Sacrifice at the Temple?

The question of whether the disciples of Jesus ceased sacrificing at the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem following his death is one that comes up occasionally among scholars interested in understanding the very earliest form of Christ-belief. This question has come up again in a new book by Paula Fredriksen, When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation (Yale, 2018).

There is no question that all of the earliest believers in Jesus as the resurrected Son of God were Jews. That acknowledgment represents a seismic shift in modern scholarship toward reappraising Jesus’s Jewishness and taking his religio-cultural background seriously. Scholars now try to understand the things that Jesus said and did in the cultural context of first-century Judaism. Judaism in the first century was complex, not at all uniform. There were many ways of being Jewish at the time. Jesus began to mark out another way of being Jewish by the things he did and said and required of his followers. According to Jesus’s own “brand” of Jewishness, then, did he deem worship in the Temple in Jerusalem acceptable and did he teach others to do so?

The importance of this question is tied up with the events of Jesus’s last week in Jerusalem. Each of the four New Testament gospels suggests that Jesus came into conflict with Jewish Temple authorities who directed that Jesus be arrested, perhaps interrogated, and then handed over to the local Roman authority, Pontius Pilate, for judgment and execution. Scholars seek to understand how and why Jesus might have been perceived as hostile to the Temple, its priestly administrators, and even to Rome. All four gospels report that Jesus made a public display of overturning the tables of businessmen and tradesmen operating in the Temple courtyard (Mark 11:15ff and par.). What was the reason for this? Did Jesus reject the Temple and teach his followers to do so?

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